Al-Khansa’

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Al-Khansa’

Circa 575 – circa 644 or later

Poet

Source

Early Life . Tumadir bint ‘Amr of the tribe of Sulaym, a pastoral tribe in Najd in central Arabia, was a well-known pre-Islamic poet whose poetry continued to be celebrated in the Muslim era. Her nickname was al-Khansa’, possibly meaning “gazelle” or “pug-nosed,” the latter being the better-known explanation. A strong-willed woman, she rejected the marriage proposal of a renowned tribal chief, Durayd ibn al-Simmah al-Jushami, because she considered him too old. Perhaps the most traumatic events in her life, perhaps, were the deaths of her brothers Mu’awiyah and Sakhr in tribal battles in 612 and 615. Much of her poetry consists of sorrowful eulogies for them, through which she encouraged her tribe to avenge itself on their killers. Al-Khansa‘ is also said to have appeared at the festive market of ’Ukaz in Makkah for the poetry contests.

Conversion to Islam . In about 630, late in the Prophet Muhammad’s career, al-Khansa is said to have gone to Madinah and embraced Islam, and Muslim tradition states that four of her six sons were slain in 637 while fighting for Islam against the Persians at al-Qadisiyyah, a battle at which she is also said to have been present. Afterward, she returned to her Arabian homeland, where she died.

Poetry . Although she lived into the Muslim era and became a Muslim, al-Khansa’s poetry remained rooted strongly in pre-Islamic times and themes. Of her poetic output, nearly a thousand lines remain. Most of her poems are elegies (marathi), particularly for her brothers. Al-Khansa’ became recognized as a true master of this ancient genre. She greatly added to its breadth of expression, and her innovations became standard in later elegiac tradition. The intensity and force of her expression, coupled with her tenderness and her concentration on the necessity and centrality of grief, make her poetry particularly striking and impressive. A poem commemorating her brother Sakhr includes these lines:

The rising of the sun reminds me of Sakhr,
       and I remember him with every setting of the sun.
If not for the numerousness of those bewailing
       their brothers, I would have killed myself.
But I do not cease seeing one bereft of her child
       and one weeping over the dead on an unlucky day.
I see her distracted by grief, weeping for her brother
       the evening of his loss or on the day after.
They do not bewail the like of my brother, but
       I console myself over him through their sorrow.

Al-Khansa’s elegies were eventually collected in a Diwan (Collected Poems) by Ibn al-Sikkit (802–858), a literary scholar of the early Abbasid era.

Source

F. Gabrieli, “Al-Khansa” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999).